Mario Gutierrez, the Kentucky Derby-winning jockey, has a story that reads like an inspirational, self-help guide.
The son of a horse trainer from Veracruz, Mexico, the 25-year-old Gutierrez developed his natural talent and ambition at small tracks in Mexico City and Vancouver into a shot at the Triple Crown.
Aboard I'll Have Another, he defeated favorites like Union Rags and Bodemeister on Saturday at Churchill Downs in front of a record 165,307 mint-julep swilling patrons in the sweltering, 90-degree Louisville heat.
Gutierrez was a teary, emotional jangle of nerves after the 2 1/2-length victory ahead of Bodemeister to win $1.4 million.
I'll Have Another is the first horse to win from the No. 19 starting gate, and many are giving Gutierrez credit for the feat.
"At the top of the stretch, I really thought we had it," Bodemeister jockey Mike Smith told Sports Illustrated. "But I knew we were in trouble when I saw Doug's horse coming."
That would be trainer Doug O'Neill, just one of the many people that were so impressed with Gutierrez's talent and demeanor along the way.
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Gutierrez started to ride at age 12, and after graduating high school, he started to race horses in Mexico City.
Once there, a Canadian trainer named Terry Jordan was vacationing in Mexico and stopped at the Hipodromo de las Americas scouting for new jocks.
The scuttlebutt around the track was about the young Gutierrez, who was winning some races.
Gutierrez jumped at the chance to race at Hastings Park in Vancouver, where Jordan introduced him to an agent.
"We got him up, and he did not know a word of English," agent Wayne Snow told the Vancouver Sun. "Mario had a great year and became the leading apprentice jockey in 2006 with 91 winners."
In Vancouver, he met horse owner Glenn Todd and trainer Troy Taylor.
His talent continued to develop, and heading into the Run for the Roses on Saturday, Gutierrez had won 670 races worth more than $10.7 million, the Sun reported.
Earlier this year, Todd and Taylor convinced Gutierrez to race in California, where his good fortune continued.
He was racing (and winning) at a track where I'll Have Another's owner, Paul Reddam, and O'Neill were watching.
"I couldn't pick Mario out of a lineup at the time," O'Neill told The Associated Press. "I had him come work the colt. They got along beautiful. Paul said, `Let's give the kid a chance.'"
It was a hunch that paid.
Gutierrez guided I'll Have Another to wins at the Santa Anita Derby and the Robert Lewis Stakes in California this year; the races combined offer $1.25 million in prize money.
Now, the duo are likely to ride straight into the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore on May 19.
Gutierrez, undoubtedly, will have a more difficult time going unnoticed there.
"This is an unbelievable dream," he told the Sun before winning in Kentucky. "Every morning I wake up I ask myself if this is really happening."
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